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Leading in Turbulent Times: What are International Leaders Saying?

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Leading in Turbulent Times: What are International Leaders Saying?


As I write this article, I’m excited to reflect on the 2017 ILA global conference theme, Leadership in Turbulent Times, and share wisdom gleaned from 12 Voice America interviews I conducted in Brussels at the conference last October. This is the second year I have interviewed keynote presenters, top speakers, political leaders, board members, and organizers in the role of media partner. The interviews resulting from this collaboration began airing  January 9, 2018 (See sidebar for complete schedule).

With a necessary focus right now on terrorist attacks and geopolitical instability across continents, and with the increase of populism as well as the impact of the rapid pace of technological advances, the logical theme of the conference was “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” It sounds ominous, right? The word turbulence typically creates anxiety and fear because it is never associated with something promising or hopeful. It is defined as conflict, confusion, and unsteady movement. I’d like, however, to offer a new way to think about turbulence. Change is never a result of stagnation, and only by churning ideas and challenging old schemata can we evolve. Turbulence, therefore, offers new opportunities across a broad range of sectors. While the challenges are more complex, and the world feels less safe, we have greater opportunities to make positive change than at any other time in recent history.

Turbulence is an ongoing condition to be managed, not a problem to be solved. Here is a summary of my key take-aways from presentations, conversations, and twelve hours of interviews I conducted for VoiceAmerica.

  1. Leadership is an interplay between our individual purpose and values, our behaviors, organizational culture, and systems and processes. It requires continual adjustment to maintain alignment between all four elements, an adjustment that is akin to a finely choreographed dance. It is ongoing and requires continuous attention and expertise. All aspects of the dance start with leadership having a self-awareness of purpose and values. This self-awareness provides the inner compass from which the leader leads the organization.
  2. Purpose and self-awareness are the foundation of effective leadership. Self-awareness is not an activity to accomplish once. It is a practice to be done regularly and routinely. When asked, most people want to make the world better than they found it. Leaders who can translate this sense of purpose into their unique commitment to action in the world are more effective as leaders because they have a North Star to guide their actions. When they share this purpose with those they lead, they build trust and inspire commitment.
  3. Reflection takes time—and it is a requirement. Reflection and meditation provide a physiological advantage by impacting the neural network in your brain. One of the precepts of self-awareness is the “moment of awareness” when we take a deep breath, pause, and ask ourselves what outcome we want in a moment. This brief pause allows us to be fully present and clear before we take our next step. The ability to pause and reflect, for a moment or longer, allows leaders to stay centered and grounded in times of high pressure.
  4. Leaders have many roles, including chief culture officer. Culture leaders are akin to musical conductors. Through their actions and attitude, they set the tone of the organization and the underlying agreements supporting that tone. In doing so, leaders create the culture in organizations that supports the purpose and values they claim to hold. Organizations living their purpose do not show it in a poster on the wall but through the underlying rhythm and music of a strong dance performance. The conductor becomes the music that inspires, sets the tempo and tone, and informs action. If the rhythm changes, so do the movements of the dancers. A strong culture offers a competitive advantage and makes successful organizations hard or impossible to emulate. One recommendation I heard repeatedly is that leaders need to create a culture of openness and safety. Awareness of the culture provides leaders with multiple perspectives so that they can adjust quickly to changes in the environment.
  5. Leaders need to inspire followership and know when to follow. Leaders are those formally recognized for their leadership role, some of them have the title of leader and others do not. We rarely talk about leaders as followers. Most leaders report to someone including boards of directors. Leaders need to learn to both lead and They also need to teach those who follow them how they would like to be followed. Back to the metaphor of the dance, each dancer is different, the interplay between different leaders and followers is unique even with the same music. Another topic generally not discussed, but highlighted at this conference, is the idea of ethical dissent — when we chose not to follow and how we courageously hold our leaders accountable.
  6. People want to perform effectively. Organizational systems need to support peoples’ positive intentions and skills. Spend less time creating systems to weed out shirkers and poor performers and more time creating a culture that enables people with purpose to do the work that fulfills them and that concurrently serves the organization’s mission and success.
  7. Teams have become far more important in the current environment. Effective teams are based on the members’ ability to communicate effectively, often across the globe. A key factor in effective team interactions is building relationships with individuals. This is best done in person and, then, can be sustained remotely. There is no substitute for strong relationships when navigating complex work.
  8. Effective communication and learning organizations have become more important with the complexity of the challenges and geographic dispersion of teams. Communication requires both strong listening skills and the ability to speak simply and concisely, including attending to conflict and complexity when necessary. It also means unflinching accountability. Leaders must be accountable for their role when problems arise, and look forward with vision of the future rather than looking back and fault finding. It is important to learn from challenges and mistakes and remain agile in the face of ongoing change. Vision forward and data analysis backward creates learning organizations.
  9. Organizations must align their purpose with that of the stakeholders within as well as with clients, and the local and global community. Making a profit is the fuel for company survival, but it is not the fuel to thrive. Companies must find the intersection between company success and social action in order to make a positive profit while, at the same time, making a positive social impact. John Heiser, the President & Chief Operating Officer of Magnetrol International, gave a beautiful example of hiring autistic adults to perform tasks for which they are best qualified. This approach allows the company to attract and retain people whose skills match their jobs as well as provide meaningful work for people in the community who often don’t find opportunities. He gave several examples of how companies could align their interests with those of the community.
  10. Global peace and security depend on recognizing our innate nature to be peaceful. When we follow our true nature, we are peaceful beings. Conference presenters and attendees I interacted with talked about the intersection of creating individual conditions in which people can express their inner goodness and, at the same time, create cultures and systems that promote peaceful work and lives.

I left the conversations feeling hopeful that compassionate, wise, and highly-successful academics, executives, politicians, and military leaders are sharing their best thinking with one another at the conference and beyond. They forge and renew relationships, and identify new opportunities to collaborate to make positive change. This forum is one in which leadership as an art and science evolves through people and their interactions.

I hope this article inspires you to listen to select interviews or, even better, the entire interview series! Interviews from 2016 are being used in academic and professional leadership development programs around the world. I encourage you to share this information freely. This complimentary set of interviews are content rich, exposing listeners to the subtleties required to build leadership acumen, and give insight into those who have made a commitment to work and to live at the intersection between exceptional research and practice in leadership.

To become a more innovative leader, please consider our online leader development program including our new program focused on building global leadership. For additional tools, we recommend taking leadership assessments, using the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook and Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, and adding coaching to our online innovative leadership program. We also offer several workshops to help you build these skills.

About the Author

Maureen Metcalf, CEO and Founder of Metcalf & Associates, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

Why International Leadership Matters Now By Maureen Metcalf

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Why International Leadership Matters Now By Maureen Metcalf


At the International Leadership Association 18th Annual conference in Atlanta in October 2016 focused on the dynamics of inclusive leadership, I had the great honor of interviewing key conference speakers. These interviews will be featured on VoiceAmerica “Innovative Leaders Driving Thriving Organizations.”

Not only was I honored to attend and present at the conference, I was invited to interview several key speakers and board members. This one-on-one contact allowed me to ask questions I cared about in my own journey as well as framing a conversation I thought would be interesting for our listeners. It was an opportunity to stretch my own thinking, get uncomfortable in discussions, and question my own beliefs. My intent in this blog is to share a snapshot of my take-aways and, also, to invite you to listen to the interviews and do your own summary of what you heard from this robust group of thought leaders and role models.  
Metcalf & Associates developed a leadership competency focused on the mindset and behaviors required to successfully navigate the complexity we face now and will continue to face in the future. This model was published in the ILA book Leadership 2050. One of the seven competencies is intellectually versatile, welcomes collaboration in a quest for novel solutions that serve the highest outcome for all involved. This competency includes the following behaviors:

• Seeks input from multiple perspectives—valuing diverse points of view

• Creates solutions to complex problems by creating new approaches that did not exist, pulling together constituents in novel ways, creating broader and more creative alliances

• Understands that in a time of extreme change, input from multiple stakeholders with diverse points of view are required

I wanted to share some of my reflections as we kick off the series. Listening to the presentations and interviewing the speakers helped me identify several key themes. The following is my personal application of intellectual versatility in stretching my own thinking and reflects what I heard across the range of speakers (seeking multiple perspectives and synthesizing them to refine my own thinking). As I update my personal practice of leadership, I am thinking about what actions I can personally take to remain as effective as possible.

1. The world is changing and some of these changes will change the trajectory as a species. How we navigate the turbulence is becoming a core competency—because chaos is not going away. We will not only face multiple concurrent changes; it is likely we will be living through turbulence the balance of our lives and some of that turbulence may change the trajectory of how humans navigate life on the planet. Climate change was mentioned frequently—not as a discussion of cause, but rather that we need to address the multiple impacts as a result of it. Some saw it as an opportunity to come together across borders to address the global issue.

2. People are now emerging as global citizens. While we live in local communities, organized by countries and continents, we are also part of the global citizenry that must address key planetary issues like climate and migration as a collective if we are to create the most robust solutions. Part of the glue that will make this possible is identifying global values that can serve as a rallying point for everyone, such as transparency in governance.

3. We are a group of scholars and practitioners who come together to address the greatest problems of our time by accurately identifying the adaptive challenges and working together to research and pilot solutions.  While everyone acknowledges that we face huge issues, there was a sense of hope because we had great minds in the room committed to creating and implementing solutions.

4. There was a strong focus on doing the work to create a peaceful planet. These conversations covered a broad range of topics such as, how do we identify ourselves, and how does that identity impact our mindset about in groups and out groups—all the way to the very macro discussion about national approaches to creating peaceful relationships across countries? These discussions were not whimsical or wishful, they focused on identifying actions we can each take to create peace in our own communities first. A couple of actions included learning about others and treating those who are different from us with respect rather than fear. The second is identifying in ourselves when we default, often unconsciously, to fear rather than curiosity. We know there are times when fear is appropriate to maintain safety; and yet, are we too fearful. Are we creating a culture in which, driven by fear, we miss the opportunities to break down barriers that no longer serve us?

5. Are we creating opportunities to be a global community that cares for every citizen based on their humanity—not based on what those citizens can offer in terms of resources?

This came out during a discussion on refugees, but also in addressing other groups that are under-served or are the “out” group. Again, these discussions were grounded in research, action, and compassion. There was a strong acknowledgment that leaving people behind causes unintended consequences that are not acceptable. We need to find a way to balance actions, as an example  retraining, as the economic landscape changes to ensure citizens are employed and contributing to their own care as well as to society.

This exploration is most useful when put into action. During one of the interviews I made a commitment to examine my own thinking and biases more closely to see where I can revise my thinking as well as behavior. It also reinforced things I care about, but have not put into action in my busy professional life. I tried to include a discussion in each interview about how can we move to action in our own lives irrespective of the level of our role in our work, families, and communities.

I invite you to join me in these conversations and see how they inform your thinking. This is certainly an opportunity to build your intellectual versatility.

About the author
Maureen Metcalf, CEO of Metcalf & Associates, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

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How Does the Study of Natural Systems Improve International Leadership? By Maureen Metcalf

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How Does the Study of Natural Systems Improve International Leadership? By Maureen Metcalf

This blog post is a companion to an Interview with Cynthia Cherrey, the President and CEO of the International Leadership association and internationally acclaimed leadership scholar, speaker and practitioner. During the interview, Cynthia discusses the importance of international leadership along with recommendations for important qualities successful international leaders need to demonstrate.  

Alexander von Humboldt was a preeminent scientist and, arguably, the father of environmentalism, born in Germany and spent the majority of his life in Europe and the Americas. His travels, exploration, and ecological discoveries were in the Americas.  He trekked the rain forest in Venezuela, climbed the Andes from Columbia to Lima, Perú, and traveled through Mexico up through western North America and points east. He wrote a prodigious number of volumes describing his great journeys throughout the Americas — a chronicle that blended science with poetry.

As early as 1800, while his peers were classifying the world into smaller taxonomic units, he was searching for global patterns. The insight for which he is renowned — and which was nearly two centuries ahead of its time —was that the world is a single web-like interconnected system.

Today, we readily recognize that we are each part of a complex, web-like interconnected system of information and relationships. But for over 300 years Western scientists operated from a worldview based on the industrial era and a Newtonian (machine-like) way of thinking. Leadership under that paradigm is characterized by, associated with, and embedded in a command and control, fixed hierarchical structure, anchored by positional authority.  

In thinking of leadership through the paradigm of natural systems, the leading edge is characterized through the exchange of information, evolution, learning, and adaptive fit. Nature readily illustrates that a living system actively cultivates others — an isolated system is destined to die. Nature seeks diversity. New relationships open up new possibilities. It is not a question of survival of the fittest. It is system diversity that increases survival of all system components. In fact, diversity moves a living system from surviving to thriving. Natural systems need many “agents of leadership” throughout the system because the system is constantly adapting and changing to meet the needs of its members. Instead of one positional leader there are many leaders dispersed throughout the system.

The field of leadership benefits from the insights and methods of study from many different disciplines and perspectives. This new paradigm is used as a framework to study, teach, and practice leadership by many leadership scholars, educators, and practitioners.
Within the ILA, scholars are studying leadership from the perspective of natural eco-systems because they reflect leadership models that could help human systems thrive. Practitioners are delving into how leadership practices could benefit from what nature can tell us about the power of diverse relationships.  Educators teaching leadership are using natural eco-systems to explore the concepts of adaptation, self-organizing, and evolution as an expression of organic change and leadership.

Humboldt’s view of nature as a single web-like interconnected system — an ecosystem — led him to cross disciplines to gain deeper insights. Arguably a great synthesizer across many disciplines, he explored nature through scientific methods, but also through art, history, literature, geography, and economics. He was multidisciplinary and believed in fostering communication across disciplines.

The field of leadership is also an ecosystem, if you will. It is interconnected systems of people, places, and things that work in concert to produce this epiphenomenon we call leadership. The ILA’s network reflects the models Humboldt researched, its members reflect a diverse population and its activities create the synthesis he referenced and provided through his work. The ILA encompasses people located in widely varied disciplines, sectors, cultures, countries, and viewpoints. It is the diversity of this ecosystem that allows it to thrive as we find our intersections with one another and together explore leadership as an ecosystem.

The preeminent leadership scholar and educator James MacGregor Burns, one of ILA’s founding members, frequently referred to himself as a mere “student of leadership.” As the consummate inquisitive learner, his example challenges us as leaders to ask: How do we, in our ongoing leadership journey, become perpetual learners with an intellectual curiosity that gives us greater insights, new knowledge, and effective leadership? While we may not, individually, be synthesizers like Humboldt, as long as we are engaged in learning from each other in our own diverse networks, we can meet Jim’s challenge and our collective work will continue to thrive.


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